Closed loop productivity

A counter-intuitive strategy to stop feeling overwhelmed at work

This article is part 3 of a multi-part series on how to eliminate stress at work with strategies informed by modern scientific research and ancient philosophy. To get instant access to the complete series, as well as exclusive bonus content that I don’t share on my blog, subscribe to my free Art of Output Insider’s List.

To be honest, I think that trying to “get more done” can be a bit of a waste of time. Instead of thinking about how much work you can cram into a day, it’s far better to focus on doing the right things, and doing them well.

But sometimes, regardless of how well you try and prioritize or negotiate your workload, you end up overwhelmed with too much stuff on your plate.

This leaves you with a few options, none of them good.

  1. You can do some of the things on your to-do list while ignoring the things you can’t get to. This is bad, and will always end up biting you in the ass.
  2. You can attempt everything done, but at a lower degree of quality. This is what many people end up unconsciously doing when they’re overwhelmed. Its also not a viable option — poor work sets you back in your career, undermines your professional reputation, and is generally a waste of everybody’s time.
  3. You can sacrifice your time (and sanity) to get everything done in a quality manner, no matter how many cups of coffee and missed hours of sleep it takes. This is the option most Type-A people opt for. It works well in the short run, but creates unhealthy stress that ultimately ends up undermining the quality of your work (and not to mention the quality of your life) in the long run.

The best way to deal with the problem of overwhelm is to avoid it all together. And the best way to do that is to develop a style of working that refines your focus and optimizes how you spend mental energy, so that you can deliver higher quality work more quickly.

The strategy I’ve found that works best for this is something I call closed-loop productivity.

Introducing closed-loop productivity

Closed-loop productivity is a style of working designed to concentrate as much of your mental resources as possible on your work — and not the distractions that are part and parcel of office life.

To understand how it works, it’s important to understand “open loops”, and how they sap mental energy. For example, say you’re about to checking your email in the morning, about to head into a meeting, and see a note from a customer that you need to respond to by the end of the week. Without the time to address the email then and there, doing so gets put off to a later point in time.

From the time that responding to the email emerges as something to be dealt with to the time you actually answer it, it sits in the back of your mind, an open loop waiting to be closed. Each time you think about the email — how you’re going to respond, when you’re going to find time to do so — without having answered it, represents an “open loop.” Given that the mind has a limited number of things it can focus on at any one time, too many “open loops” leave us unable to focus clearly on whatever task is at hand, and leave us mentally drained at the end of the day.

“Open loops” are so mentally taxing and problematic to productivity that entire productivity systems, such as Getting Things Done and Kanban have been built around the principle of closing these open loops and minimizing “work-in-progress.”

To understand, consider the Zeigarnik effect, which refers to our mind’s natural tendency to focus on incomplete tasks. As Cal Newport explains in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, the Zeigarnik effect “tells us that if you simply stop whatever you are doing at five p.m. and declare, ‘I’m done with work until tomorrow,’ you’ll likely struggle to keep your mind clear of professional issues, as the many obligations left resolved in your mind will, as in Bluma Zeigarnik’s experiments, keep battling for your attention throughout the evening.”

The Zeigarnik effect, a product of open loops, not only hinders your mind from effectively doing your work by distracting you with other unresolved tasks, but it also impedes on mental recovery when you’re not in the office by flooding your mind with thoughts of work after hours.

Understood accordingly, open loops create two distinct problems when it comes to stress and overwhelm.

  1. Open loops reduce your productivity by taking focus away from whatever you’re working on at a given point in time. When you’re less productive, you either lower the quality of your work, increase the amount of time you need to spend working, or increase the number of things piling up on your to-do list, leading to increased overwhelm.
  2. Per the Zeigarnik effect, open loops limit your ability to recharge when you are not at work, leaving less mental energy in the tank when you get into the office.

Closed-loop productivity is designed to strike at the root of these challenges.

Eliminating open loops with closed loop productivity

The idea behind closed loop productivity is to focus as much of your energy on closing open loops — resolving unresolved tasks — before taking on new work. This maximizes the amount of your mental energy that can be concentrated on your work, giving you a fighting chance against feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list.

Here are my 3 favorite strategies for minimizing the negative impact of open loops:

Strategy #1: Follow the 2 minute rule

You may be familiar with the “five-second rule” — if you drop food on the floor, you’re ‘allowed’ to pick it back up and eat it as long as it hasn’t touched the floor for longer than five seconds.

While I personally find this to be a bit unhygienic, I’m a fan of the five-second rule’s distant relative, the “2 minute” to-do rule.

Here’s how it works: whenever you’re presented with something you need to do, whether it’s to make a phone call, or send an email, or answer a question from a coworker — if it would take less than 2 minutes to do, do it immediately.

I know this contrasts with a lot of productivity advice that emphasizes focusing energy on the important and non-urgent, high-impact items above all else. And while that guidance can be directionally correct, if enough non-important or non-urgent half-finished tasks crowd our to-do list, they can crowd away focus from the bigger, important thing we’re trying to focus on. Since you have to do it all anyway, it’s better to complete the small tasks upfront, clearing your mind before setting it onto your big projects.

Strategy #2: “Capture” all of your to-dos in an easy-to-reference framework

The Getting Things Done productivity system (and many others) rightfully emphasize “capture” as a core tenet for doing more while stressing less, and for good reason. “Capture” — consciously noting down things that need to be done on some iteration of a to-do list — helps make more efficient use of mental resources in a number of ways.

First, it removes the mental burden of having to remember everything you need to do. It doesn’t matter if you’re mentally capable of remembering everything without writing it down — it’s that, even if you’re able to do so, in doing so, you’re consuming valuable mental resources that could be better deployed elsewhere.

Second, organizing captured tasks on a list removes the cognitive burden of having to decide what to do and when to do it. Countless studies show that choice-making of any type (from deciding how you approach a meeting to deciding which sandwich you want to grab for lunch) leads to a phenomenon called “Decision fatigue,” which drains willpower and energy to do work. Being able to simply refer to a list of things to do removes choice from the equation, enabling energy that would otherwise be spent on deciding what to do to be invested in the things themselves.

Entire books have been written about the best way to practice capture. If you just want to get started, using something as simple as a pen-and-paper to-do list will make a world of difference compared to trying to keep everything organized in your own head. For something a little bit more robust, I’m a fan of the Personal Kanban system, which combines capture with a means of tracking “work in progress,” enabling you to visualize your open loops, so that you can structure your work in a way that minimizes them.

Or, if you’d like to go all out on capture, you could leverage the Getting Things Done system, which calls for to-dos to be captured and run through a complex flowchart to help prioritize when and how to do it.

The important thing is that you find a capture system that works best for you, so that you can consistently implement it throughout your work and realize the benefits of closed-loop productivity.

Strategy #3: Shutdown rituals

Closing loops within the course of a work day is important — but what do you do when you finish the day and you still have things left undone? For any project or initiative that spans across days (or months, or years), the Zeigarnik effect ensures that we’re going to be left with open loops that our minds wrestle with over the course of the evening.

In response to this tendency for the mind to hold onto work after hours, Cal Newport recommends in Deep Work to build a shutdown ritual to support more effective post-work mental recharging.

As Newport explains, ‘decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of deep work.”

A shutdown ritual, to be performed at the end of the busy work day, facilitates this rest by freeing the mind from its natural inclination to dwell on incomplete tasks.

Newport recommends a shutdown ritual that consists of:

  • Checking email one last time to ensure there are no urgent messages that must be responded to (and to provide yourself with the psychological comfort that there’s nothing you’ve ‘missed’)
  • Writing down any outstanding tasks on the mind (and optionally, next steps or actions to take for the following day)
  • Skimming the entire to-do list, and reviewing the next few days on the calendar
  • Creating a high-level plan for the next day

I like to supplement this shutdown routine by writing down whatever stressful thoughts are running through my mind, and actions I can take (or mental frameworks I can adopt) to resolve these stressors. This helps further free the mind from the worries of the day and enable it to more effectively recharge.

Putting it all together

When you implement closed-loop productivity, a lot of goodness follows. Practiced over the course of a work week (and indeed, over a career), closed-loop productivity unlocks an abundance of mental energy that transforms the most of overwhelming of workloads into something much more manageable.

And it’s not even that hard! To recap, all you need to do to get started is:

  • Follow the 2 minute rule: For anything that takes less than 2 minutes, do it NOW instead of making a plan to do it later
  • Capture your to dos! Whether you choose to use pen and paper, or a tool like Asana or Trello, the important thing is that you’re offloading the burden of remembering from your mind.
  • Build in a shutdown ritual. Just like your muscles need to recover after a hard workout, so too does your brain after a long day at work. The better your rest, the better your work — and shutdown rituals can help your brain turn “off” work so you can recover.

Ultimately, these strategies help you get more quality work done with the same amount of time by making better use of your finite mental energy. Doing so enables you to address overwhelm at its roots, eliminating the stress that’s caused by “too much to do.”